Science

Origins of Covid-19: “There is enough information to solve the mystery”

Two years have passed, two long years! – that the world lives to the rhythm of Sars-CoV-2. Epidemic waves follow one another and we have learned to accept restrictive measures. But one question remains unanswered: where does this virus, responsible for the death of more than 5 million people, come from? Is it the result of a zoonotic overflow as has happened in the past or is it the result of a laboratory accident?

If the thesis of a natural transmission from animals to humans, under still inexplicable conditions, is favored by most scientists, the one leading to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which, today is known, had collected viruses near Sars. CoV-2 from South China, is not closed. Especially since Chinese researchers, in addition to collecting these bat coronaviruses in caves, were conducting experiments to make them capable of infecting human cells. The coincidence between the starting point of the epidemic – the Wuhan animal market – and the close presence of the laboratory has cast doubts in the minds of many specialists. In a research book entitled Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (Harper Collins), British journalist and politician Matt Ridley and Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explore all the pathways that link the virus with the WIV, without being able to prove however that it was the result of a laboratory accident. For L’Express, Matt Ridley, a fervent advocate of “rigorous science” and known for his controversial writing on climate change, reflects on his findings … and the gray areas that persist.

L’Express: Two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, you are publishing a book with biologist Alina Chan, entitled Viral, which returns to the mystery of the origins of the virus. What are the main elements that you discovered during your eighteen month investigation?

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Matt Ridley: The main findings are that two years after the start of the pandemic, there is no evidence to support a natural flooding event. Specifically, no animal in the Huanan market has been infected despite tens of thousands of tests carried out, in particular by the WHO, and no formal test attests that this virus circulated in Wuhan or nearby, whether among bats or humans. , before the start of the pandemic. If the first case officially identified by China is an employee of the market, it is by no means the first real infection with Sars-CoV-2, as this place has only played the role of super-spreader.

“It is a staggering lack of transparency on the part of China in a crisis of this magnitude.”

Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the existence of a vast research program, in Wuhan more than anywhere else in the world, on the SARS-like bat coronavirus. And the closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2 were found at the beginning of the pandemic within the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This is RaTG13, 96.2% similar to Sars-CoV-2, that the Wuhan researchers had collected from a cave in Yunnan (an even closer virus has since been discovered in a cave in Laos, editor’s note ). However, his name had been changed and his discovery site was not disclosed. Furthermore, we now know that at least eight other SARS-type coronaviruses were collected from the same site where three minors died of pneumonia of unknown origin in 2012. But these viruses have not been published or sequenced. It’s a staggering lack of transparency on China’s part in a crisis of this magnitude.

Would you go so far as to say with almost certainty that the epidemic we know of is the result of a laboratory accident?

No, it cannot be said with almost certainty because, to this day, there is no definitive and irrefutable evidence. A zoonotic origin is also possible. But both must be taken seriously and we need more research. Personally, we are leaning at this stage on the hypothesis of a lab leak, but this remains to be proven.

You affirm a “solid scientific investigation and the most objective possible”. How did you do it?

We set out to write a book that would examine all the available evidence as carefully as possible, to avoid speculation and to present readers with all the material in a balanced way.

In particular, he was assisted by someone, a member of the Drastic group, a motley group of scientific “detectives” formed on Twitter called The Seeker. Why do you think this group has become so important in investigating the origins of the virus?

With few exceptions, the mainstream media and scientists have shown little interest in investigating this topic. However, several people have decided to dedicate their time to “open source analysis”, that is, to look for documents in China and other places, available on the Internet but well hidden, that shed light on the events that would have led to the pandemic such as the we know. These individuals, some of whom have become members of the “Drastic” group, have found valuable new information in the tradition of citizen science. The Seeker is in fact one of the best known because this Indian researcher has brought to light several works carried out within the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

We recently discovered viruses near Sars-CoV-2 in caves in Laos, not far from Yunnan. Does this mean, in your opinion, that the virus was born in these cavities, was picked up by the WIV and ended up by accident on the streets of Wuhan? Have there been gain-of-function experiences?

The discovery of Laos is very important. It shows that similar viruses are circulating in bats in neighboring countries. But we do know that the NGO EcoHealth Alliance, led by Peter Daszak, was collecting bat viruses in Laos and other countries before 2016 and sending samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for analysis. We know that they also offered to do this after 2016, but we don’t know if it was actually done, and if so, we don’t know which viruses were collected and shipped to Wuhan.

It is also known today that gain-of-function experiments were carried out in WIV to unexpectedly improve the infectivity and virulence of bat viruses in human cells and in humanized mice.

At the beginning of the epidemic, almost no scientist agreed with the thesis of laboratory manipulation. Today, the context is different. How to explain such an investment?

Following the WHO investigation in China, two proposals were considered possible: a zoonotic overflow of the virus and the importation of contaminated frozen meat into China. Only the thesis of a laboratory accident was put aside. This has cast doubt on the minds of many scientists. About 20 of them subsequently signed a letter in Science magazine in May 2021, arguing that an unnatural origin should be investigated. This changed the attitude of the media that stopped seeing this thesis as a conspiracy theory. However, there is still significant resistance in scientific journals and the media to a fair consideration of the evidence for a laboratory leak.

During your investigation, did you come under pressure from Chinese or US government organizations?

No, we were not under direct pressure, but we were subjected to personal attacks that tried to undermine our credibility in the Chinese state media.

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Do you think that one day we will know the origin of Sars-CoV-2?

Yes, I think there is enough information to solve the problem and it will eventually come to light. But it could take several years.

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